An icon is retired

Full speed ahead.

It was not entirely unexpected, but a lot of people were still shocked when it happened. The IKEA catalogue would be no more! IKEA had been discussing whether or not to continue with the printed catalogue for several years, but it took a long while to make the decision to discontinue it. The catalogue was a strong part of the IKEA identity, and was much loved by many people.

One person who was there for the journey until the printed catalogue was retired was Lena Simonsson Berge, former head of communication and brand identity at IKEA. She describes the general feeling at the time like hesitating on a springboard. Should we jump? When should we jump? When will we dare to make that leap?

“It was a bit like that,” Lena remembers. “And the springboard kept on getting shorter and narrower. It was about digitisation, but also about distribution difficulties. IKEA didn’t discontinue the printed catalogue because the contents weren’t relevant – it remained just as interesting and had long been shared in all kinds of ways. It was discontinued because the media landscape and people’s behaviour had changed.”

Lena Simonsson Berge, woman with short spiky blond hair, black-rimmed glasses, black jacket and white T-shirt.
Lena Simonsson Berge, former head of communication and brand identity at IKEA, was involved in the entire process of retiring the IKEA catalogue, a journey that took several years. On a personal level she felt both sadness and nostalgia in relation to the decision.
Mia Olsson Tunér, blonde woman in black jacket with black and white patterned scarf.
Mia Olsson Tunér took over as catalogue manager in 2019, and was informed about the discontinuation while busy producing the 2022 IKEA catalogue, which never was printed. Today, she is responsible for parts of the global communication on home furnishing from IKEA on digital platforms and in other formats.

A lot of people at IKEA felt a sense of concern and also nostalgia when they heard the news. “Towards the end things moved quite quickly, and that part of the process was kept rather confidential,” Lena explains. She could see how hard the news affected a lot of people emotionally, both within and outside of IKEA. In Sweden, where the catalogue had enjoyed iconic status for decades, many people felt nostalgia and even loss. There were countless Swedish letterboxes with a notice stating: “No advertising or junk mail please, just the IKEA catalogue”.

“Historically speaking, the catalogue has by far been the most important tool for positioning IKEA as a brand,” says Lena. “And when the catalogue became global, and partially adapted to different markets, IKEA soon realised that there were more similarities than differences in what we need and want in our homes – regardless of culture and furnishing traditions.”

Letterbox on brown apartment door with sign
In Sweden the catalogue held a special place and enjoyed iconic status for decades. Countless Swedish letterboxes had a notice stating, “No advertising or junk mail please, just the IKEA catalogue”.

The catalogue has also been hugely important internally. “As usual, Ingvar Kamprad did something very wise when he decided to invest in the catalogue. It became an important instrument of control,” says Lena. “By placing a certain product on the cover, or giving it an important place inside, IKEA sent a signal to all its co-workers which products were expected to sell well.”

The catalogue that became an icon

The very first IKEA catalogue came out in autumn 1950. Even then it had a personal tone, speaking directly to the many people. In the beginning, Ingvar Kamprad wrote most of the texts himself and also decided what the images should look like.

“IKEA started out as a mail order company, and this is evident in the early catalogues. At the time, it was mainly about presenting products that were available for sale,” says Anna Sandberg Falk, exhibition curator at IKEA Museum in Älmhult. The catalogue soon came to look more and more like a home furnishing guide which also reflected people’s everyday lives.

“In the 1960s, adwoman Brita Lang started working with Ingvar Kamprad,” says Anna. “Brita created vibrant, inviting room settings and described the products in a way that turned the catalogue into something that was more about interior design than just a showcase for products you could buy.”

Page in IKEA catalogue 1962 with full page image of living room in blue and white colours, dining area and spot lighting.
When the IKEA catalogue, with input from adwoman Brita Lang, started showing complete solutions and whole homes in the early 1960s, people could find furniture, ideas and solutions that suited them.
Page in IKEA catalogue 1961 with illustrations and descriptions of furnishings and solutions for life at home.
From the 1961 IKEA catalogue, readers were given more and more concrete, everyday tips for life at home. The catalogue became an authority and trend-setter, firmly anchored in everyday life and distributed to the many people.

Lena Simonsson Berge also stresses how important it was that the IKEA catalogue started showing complete solutions and whole homes. “People could explore home interiors and find furniture, details, ideas and solutions that suited them. And historically speaking, printed matter was viewed as an authority. What was printed was true, and this made the IKEA catalogue an early authority on home furnishing, especially in Sweden,” she explains. “People waited for the IKEA catalogue to turn up in the post so they could find out what was right and what was wrong. Not that everyone had the same taste, but the catalogue was a trend-setter, realistic and life-like, so a lot of people could relate. And of course, it was free!”

Important for the brand

The IKEA catalogue came to be increasingly important to the brand and identity. The print run increased. At most there were 220 million printed, in 69 different versions, 32 languages for more than 50 markets. Every catalogue cover was a huge display window for all of IKEA, and in Sweden the release of the catalogue in the autumn was a major media event. The catalogue was reviewed and discussed in the culture and financial sections of the major daily newspapers. Meanwhile, critical scrutiny also increased.

“The IKEA catalogue got a lot of praise, but also some harsh words sometimes,” Lena remembers. “For instance, the 1992 catalogue came in for all kinds of criticism. The cover featured mahogany-coloured furniture, brass details and two ultra-floral sofas. The media accused us of betraying our roots and flirting with a continental furnishing style. In the role I had at the time I had to deal with a lot of angry phone calls, which I was totally unprepared for. But the criticism did actually get IKEA to open its eyes. We had to put things right and make adjustments to the range.”

IKEA catalogue cover from 1992 with dark wooden furniture, floral patterned sofas and brass details.
The 1992 IKEA catalogue received a lot of negative reactions, particularly in the Swedish media. The cover featured mahogany-coloured furniture, brass details and flowery chintz. IKEA was accused of betraying its roots and “flirting with a continental furnishing style”.

As the catalogue was translated into more languages and used in more and more countries, distribution proved to be a challenge. In Sweden, every home had a letterbox and could have the IKEA catalogue delivered direct. “But that was certainly not the case everywhere,” explains Lena. “Sometimes catalogues had to be stacked in stairwells or quite simply didn’t reach their destination. In many places it was too expensive and complicated to send the catalogue to people’s homes. Distribution was an issue to the very end and was a factor in the decision to discontinue it. We quite simply couldn’t reach the many people, which defeated much of the point of the catalogue.”

At the same time, there was growing interest in the possibilities of digitalisation. In 2001, IKEA began developing e-commerce and started to experiment with various digital solutions to complement the printed catalogue. For example, Lena Simonsson Berge remembers an attempt to include QR codes in the printed catalogue. “Customers could scan codes using their smartphones to access more information on the internet. But the technology was still under development at the time and it was no great success.”

Soon the digital solutions stopped trying to supplement the IKEA catalogue and instead simply became a different way of communicating, especially when social media changed the media landscape in the early 2000s.

The final push

The 2021 IKEA catalogue, which came out in autumn 2020, was the final printed one. By then it had long been made in one main version, which was then adjusted slightly to work on the different markets. So the catalogue in the USA didn’t look exactly the same as the one in Norway, South Korea or Australia. For the 2021 edition, interior designers created around ten home environments for different target groups, in different sizes and styles. The homes were built up, photographed and filmed. After that, each IKEA market got to choose six of the homes which they felt best suited their catalogue.

“Some of the choices may well surprise those who have stereotypical ideas about how people live in different parts of the world,” says Lena. “For example, I remember that Saudi Arabia chose one of the smallest homes, which IKEA Japan had helped to build. Many people have this image of people in the Gulf states living in grand luxury, but compact living is a phenomenon everywhere, from Jeddah to Alvesta,” says Lena.

The slideshow below shows a few of the covers for the IKEA catalogue 2021, adapted to different markets.

IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue 2021, Canada.
IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue 2021, Jordan.
IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue 2021, Indonesia.
IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue 2021, Poland.
IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue 2021, Italy.
IKEA catalogue cover 2021 with image of bedroom and IKEA logo.
IKEA catalogue 2021, Germany.

The environment a factor

Environmental impact was one of many factors that were discussed with regard to discontinuing the printed catalogue, even though that process had been under way for a long time. An important milestone came in 2014, when the IKEA catalogue reached 100% FSC-certified paper. After that, the focus was on reducing the catalogue’s impact on the climate.

To achieve the goals, IKEA looked at the catalogue’s entire value chain from forest to letterbox.

A lot of people think that transport and distribution accounted for the majority of the catalogue’s impact on the climate, but analyses showed that they were in fact only around 2% of the total. Instead IKEA had to look at other aspects, like making sure that the heat used by printing houses to dry the printing ink faster didn’t run on fossil fuel. When the final catalogue was printed in 2020 the carbon footprint (i.e. carbon dioxide emissions) per catalogue had successfully been reduced by 50% compared to 2016. To achieve this, IKEA looked at the catalogue’s entire value chain from forest to letterbox, as Carmen Vercauteren, Sustainability Leader at IKEA Communications, explains: “Sourcing was key in this process. For example we moved production to suppliers who used renewable energy as far as possible.”

“Since there were also other changes with the catalogue, such as printing fewer copies and expanding the online experience instead, the total reduction in climate impact for the catalogue was eventually over 90 per cent,” says Niklas Petersson, manager at Communication & Media Services, IKEA Communications.

Accelerated by the pandemic

When Covid-19 hit the world in early 2020, text and images for the 2021 IKEA catalogue were already prepared for layout and printing ahead of the autumn 2020 launch. But the pandemic made the catalogue harder to distribute. The people who did receive one could often not visit the IKEA stores, which were closed or on restricted opening hours in many countries. And behind the scenes, work on the next catalogue had already begun – a process lasting several months and involving planning, construction of interiors, photography and filming, all led by catalogue manager Mia Olsson Tunér. It was in the middle of this whole process that the retirement decision was announced.

Light and relaxed living room where a young couple and small boy smile and socialise together.
Floor to ceiling shelf with storage solutions for children’s clothing and toys. In foreground, a small table and two chairs.
For the 2022 IKEA catalogue, ten homes were created with teams around the world based on different themes and needs. The homes were constructed, photographed and filmed. There was never a printed catalogue, but all the material was of course used in digital channels and in other arenas. To the left, an image from the home themed “What money can’t buy”, made with IKEA Portugal. Right, a home developed with IKEA Japan on the theme of “An ode to slow”.
Busy production team, man and woman, stand with camera around a table in light room with modern decor.
When the decision to stop printing the IKEA catalogue was announced, work on the 2022 edition had already begun. The solutions that were adapted to the printed catalogue were quickly modified by catalogue manager Mia Olsson Tunér and her creative team,so they would work even more optimally in digital channels.

“Obviously it was a shock to many people, but there was also a power in being right in the middle of production and being forced to shift focus immediately. It was amazing to see how ready all the creative teams were for that change. It was like pushing a button. There was an explosion of ideas about how we could inspire people and show the products in digital media only, rather than both there and in the printed catalogue. Everybody focused on solving the task at hand. It’s a hallmark of IKEA that when a problem comes along, everyone does everything to solve it together,” says Mia.

It had previously been a huge task to create the thick catalogue with tailored content for each market, based on a limited number of home settings and furnishing solutions. Unique, customised material adapted to suit each market. “Digital platforms could now give every market so much more, broader and more versatile material,” Mia explains. “Also, each story about different solutions, products and home environments could be told in several different ways. It made everything richer and freer.”

Table top seen from above with IKEA catalogue with postit notes, sketch pads, fabric samples, crayons and scissors.
It was a huge effort every year to produce a 200-page catalogue full of inspiring, customised ideas tailored to different markets.

Historical documents

The printed IKEA catalogue may be history, but it’s still possible to browse and be inspired by the collective output of seven decades. All the Swedish IKEA catalogues from 1951 to 2021 have been digitised and are easily accessible. Exhibition curator Anna Sandberg Falk says that IKEA Museum also keeps physical copies in its archives, but that these are for posterity and are too fragile to handle. She recommends instead diving into the old catalogues online, or on monitors at IKEA Museum in Älmhult.

“It’s like a journey through time, as they so clearly reflect the lifestyles and attitudes to home furnishing of each particular era,” says Anna. “Like in the 1972 catalogue, where children can suddenly roam every room in the house, and the focus is on socialising in a family room. Another thing that is noticeable over time is technological progress. In the 1950s the cover almost always features the living room, and in 1960 a TV set entered the scene. In the 2000s the bedroom is more often in focus. This is in line with the increased focus on the importance of sleep to people’s well-being. The covers quite simply show what was important at that particular time.”

IKEA catalogue cover from 1962 with desk, seating areas and fireplace.
For decades, the IKEA catalogues reflected the zeitgeist in terms of lifestyle and attitudes to life at home. In the 1950s and ’60s, the covers showed the living room.

New avenues

Lena Simonsson Berge remembers the feeling towards the end: “It was a pretty good mixture of sadness with a hint of nostalgia on the one hand, and a sense of anticipation and new opportunities on the other. The catalogue engaged an entire world, and got people to look at their homes in a new way. When the IKEA catalogue was printed in more than 200 million copies, we reached at least 100 million households. This meant that IKEA visited 100 million homes, providing tips and inspiration. And even though IKEA gets millions of visits to its website, it’s not quite the same.”

Lena looks forward to a catalogue-free life with equal amounts of delight and nervousness. “Personally, I think IKEA has always gone its own way. Will this mean that we now start following everyone else? I don’t think so. IKEA always turns problems into opportunities, and will find new ways of presenting its thoughts about life at home.”

Mobile screen with image flow showing interior design solutions for different room types, from living room to bedroom.
IKEA uses digital channels as well as many other arenas to share ideas and home decor inspiration with the many people. This includes everything from public events to creative workshops and home visits.

Today, Mia Olsson Tunér is responsible for parts of the global communication on home furnishing from IKEA on digital platforms and in other formats. She too can see both challenges and huge opportunities. It takes hard work to establish a position in new arenas, but Mia is not worried about the future.

“Transitioning from print to digital only, virtually overnight, along with hundreds of people involved, is one of the most powerful changes I’ve ever experienced,” Mia remembers. “It felt like a tremendously hopeful first step into the future – a life without the printed IKEA catalogue, but with home furnishing inspiration that’s richer than ever.”